It seems that tolerance is gaining ascendancy as a new, primary virtue. For Plato in The Republic, justice is the epitome of the virtues. Yet, in our society in which we do not wish to hurt the feelings of others, I wonder if tolerance trumps many of the virtues. If tolerance is gaining in popularity, perhaps it is time to ask the question: Are tolerance and forgiveness the same and if not how do they differ?
First let us examine the similarities between these two moral qualities. Both include patience as the person restrains from harshness toward someone who is annoying or unjust. Both include mercy at least in the sense of restraining oneself in the face of one’s own anger. Both respect the other as a person and so one’s own thoughts, beliefs, or actions are not imposed on the other or others.
Now to the differences between these two seemingly-similar terms.
First, when one tolerates another’s actions, he or she can do so at a distance. To tolerate is to “put up with” another’s behavior. I can tolerate a screaming child and not attend to him or her and not enter into that child’s life. To forgive is to make oneself available to the other, to try to enter into the other’s world through loving that person. Of course, this will not always happen if the other does not wish to reconcile, but I want you to see that forgiveness is far more than “putting up with” a person’s actions or the person him- or herself.
Second, to tolerate means to recognize and respect the rights of others. Because a right in this sense is never a wrong, tolerance cannot be forgiveness, which takes place in the face of another’s wrong.
Third, “to put up with” certain actions is not always moral. If you put up with a person’s compulsive gambling habit or drug addiction, you are hardly helping this person in a moral sense. So, there are aspects of tolerance that degenerate into immorality—an offense of omission or a failure to act when it is appropriate to do so. Forgiveness in its true sense is never immoral. Please see our post in Ask Dr. Forgiveness (March 28, 2012) on the issue of “false forgiveness” for more information on this.
Are tolerance and forgiveness the same? Although they share certain moral characteristics, there is a substantial difference between them.
I read a newspaper article recently in which the writer stated that forgiveness is against our nature. It was a small sentence with a profound implication. Is this true, that forgiveness, or at least the capacity to forgive, is not something that is part of us (built-in) as persons?
I read a different newspaper article recently in which the writer was taking a book author to task for suggesting that children forgive more easily than adults. The criticism was coming from one particular conservative Protestant Christian perspective, with the point that we are not born “good” and have to grow into goodness.
Two newspaper articles, at least two views of forgiveness: one that we are born with a tendency not to forgive and the other that we are born with such a tendency.
Of course, as will all large questions like the “nature of man,” which this question addresses, we will find differences of opinion based in part on one’s existing world view. Here are four world views that address this issue of forgiveness and our nature.
First, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, we can see where one person would make the claim that forgiveness is not in our best interest because it can make us vulnerable to another’s attack, his or her injustice perpetrated on us for the purpose of dominance. We are then less likely to pass our genes to the next generation as we make ourselves vulnerable to offending others through forgiveness.
Sociobiology, on the other hand, might make the claim that we need to be in community to survive (for the purpose of passing on our genes to the next generation) and so forgiveness aids in the recovery of social harmony following a rift.
From the viewpoint, not of biology, but of theology, as discussed in the above-mentioned newspaper article, there is a third perspective, that of original sin. We are born with a tendency for injustice, not justice and so forgiveness would be foreign to our basic nature as the adults in the community socialize the child for goodness.
A fourth perspective, also from theology, states that we are all made in the image and likeness of God and therefore, despite a tendency to offend (the original sin issue), we nonetheless have a certain divine spark that helps us, innately, to be good at least to a point. The combination of the tendency to offend and to be good exists in this viewpoint.
When we put the four perspectives side-by-side the most subtle conclusion is that we have within our very nature the capacity for perpetrating injustice and the capacity for good. The ultimate burden then, if this is the case, is on the adults in any community. It is so because the adults, in the family, in schools, in places of worship, and other venues where children are present, have the opportunity to bring forth the good every time they interact with a child. This is a strong rationale for forgiveness education, and that rationale is sound regardless of which of the four world views above someone holds.
I was browsing the Net today and ran across a quotation similar to the one above. It seemed so tidy and so succinct and……..so utterly incorrect. Look at that final statement closely, “I now trust no woman.” That can be one of the fall-outs of unforgiveness—a view of the world that is pessimistic. If you think about it, if he enters into another relationship, the woman may be entirely trustworthy, but he very well may not see it. In such a case, both lose. It is not her fault that he is bringing mistrust into the relationship. She will be hurt directly by his unforgiveness of someone else in the past. The irony of it all is that this new woman in his life could be a source of love and joy for him (and he for her), which are both unlikely to happen if he keeps an emotional arms-length distance to protect his wounded heart.
“I will never forgive” has its consequences both for the one who says and lives it and for those directly affected by the refusal and resulting pessimism. Is it worth it to proclaim and then to live out, “I will never forgive”? Perhaps he is not ready today, but he should consider keeping the door open in the future so that the initial emotional wound of the break up does not lead to more wounds for himself and others.
I have seen two websites lately that have assumed that the expression, “Let it go,” typifies forgiveness. It is an unexamined assumption on both sites. Is it reasonable to assume that this statement represents forgiveness? Let us examine it and see.
Forgiveness is a virtue, as is justice, patience, kindness, and love. These moral qualities are meant to be directed from one’s own inner world outward to others for good. We give justice to other people and not to things. How can you be fair to a car or a hurricane, for example? How can you be kind to a door? Virtues are meant for good to other people. Forgiveness, being a virtue, is the same. As we forgive we reduce resentment specifically toward the person who was unjust. As we forgive we offer mercy specifically toward that same person.When we let something go, we are releasing a situation or a circumstance. Look carefully at the sentence. We are letting an “it” go, not a person. Can we let a situation go and still not forgive? I think we can all imagine examples of this. Suppose a boss asks you to work late five days in a row. You might “let this go” because you think the boss is morally incapable of doing what is right and good. You might “let it go” when a friend says something offensive to you, not to honor him or her as forgiveness does by being merciful, but out of expedience to keep the friendship. You might “let it go” if there is an external reward waiting for you, such as a raise or praise, as you remain annoyed or neutral toward the person-as-person. My point is that there are a lot of ways to “let it go” and either ignore or dismiss the person connected with “it.”
It seems that “let it go” and forgiveness are not necessarily the same thing. One is centered on the “its” of the world whereas the other is centered on persons.
Even goodness can be used for ends to which it was not intended. Forgiveness is no exception to this. Consider the following true story. A woman in her late 30s came to me to discuss the fine points of forgiveness. She was college-educated, a sharp thinker, and seemed quite focused on getting to know what forgiveness is and is not.
Her motive was to forgive her husband for injustices which she did not divulge to me. We spent a while discussing what forgiveness is and what it is not, that it is not excusing or forgetting what happened or reconciling, where two or more people come together again in mutual trust.
“I want to learn to forgive and then put this into practice in my marriage,” she said to me with resolve. I was encouraged.
A few weeks later, we met and I, of course, was curious about how her newly acquired forgiveness skills were faring in the marriage. “Oh, I forgave my husband and then left him.” Surprised by this juxtaposition of forgiving and leaving, I asked for some clarification.
“I never knew that forgiveness and reconciliation were not the same,” she said with some relief, “So, I forgave him and did not reconcile.” And that was the end of her story.
As we talked further, it was obvious to me that she was using this distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation as a kind of excuse to bail out of the marriage without putting the patience of forgiveness to work. She quickly left him without grappling with the issues of true forgiveness and true reconciliation. I was left with the impression of her using this distinction as an excuse rather than as an opportunity. The opportunity would have been to first try reconciliation alongside forgiveness.
Maybe she already tried reconciliation before coming to see me and it failed. I doubt this because when she approached me, she thought that the two terms, forgiveness and reconciliation, were interchangeable. She was originally intent on putting this into practice.
In this context everyone lost, including forgiveness herself.
Ask yourself this question as you consider forgiveness: What is my motive? Is it to do good? Or is it to find a quick and easy way out? An answer of “yes” to this final question should show you that it is only an imitation of forgiveness that is being practiced.